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Author's Note: Some of you may recognize this article, as it originally ran three years ago on another website. The piece has been substantially updated with over a dozen new photos--some never before published--plus additional text to reflect the car's recent history and rebuild, and is presented here to introduce MiceAge readers to the history of this remarkable car. - Steve


Slowly and gently, the steam-powered passenger train drifts to a halt at the imposing brick station. The engine's bell has ceased its clanging, and the locomotive hisses and groans, anxious to continue its journey. Passengers scurry off the trains with loved ones in tow, while excited others clamber on board to grab a place on the hard wooden seats in the crowded coach.

After calmly presenting your specially-engraved ticket to the blue-vested conductor on the station platform, however, you are cordially escorted to the rear of the train, to a deep burgundy-colored car, varnished to a high gloss, with bright red and dark green trim. The conductor fishes around embarrassingly in his vest pocket, but eventually he draws out a shiny brass key on a round ring. Inserting the key into the keyhole below the polished brass doorknob of the car, the conductor turns it once, and then turns the knob. Once the door is open, you climb the car's steps, the conductor lending gentle assistance at your elbow. Your fellow passengers in the penultimate car look on enviously as you stand on the car's platform. Then you cross the threshold and into the car. As the conductor shuts the door behind you, passengers sitting nearby in the adjacent coach can see what's written on the brass plate affixed to the bright red door panel: Lilly Belle.

This is her story.

To begin, we really should have some sort of historical context with which to view the Lilly Belle, and to understand private cars, we should know something about them. George Mortimer Pullman did not invent the idea of luxurious rail travel, but he certainly perfected it. Known more for improvements to the sleeping car, in the late 19th century his Pullman Palace Car Company also built hundreds of private cars during the great age of trains.

Observation car, parlor car, private car. What's the difference between all these conveyances? They were all variations on a theme: That of showcasing all that a railroad had to offer to its most influential passengers. Far from being least, these cars were the last ones in a passenger train, bringing up the rear as cabooses did on freight trains.

Riding in style on the Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited
at the turn of the 19th century. Love the hats

Generally, "observation" cars referred to the car placed on the tail end of a passenger train. At the turn of the 19th century, observation cars generally featured large rear windows where passengers could watch the passing scenery. Before the advent of the modern streamline enclosed tail car in the 1930s, the typical rear car's most striking and discernable feature, however, was an elaborate wrought-iron or brass railing, surrounding an open rear deck where elegantly-dressed ladies and tuxedoed gentlemen passengers could sip Champagne or a chilled ale while sitting on wicker chairs and watching the countryside and tracks pass by in a mesmerizing blur.

What the view looked like from the platform. The conductor
was there to tend to the passengers' every need.

Sometimes these cars were also called "parlor" cars, reflecting the typical 19th century parlor that graced many homes of the era, where folks could "sit a spell" and enjoy one another's company. Parlor cars, however, did not necessarily include the rear deck, and could sometimes be found mid-train.

For sheer luxury and glamour, however, the "private" rail car was the most opulent way for men of power and wealth to travel.

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2008 Steve DeGaetano

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